Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Road to El Dorado (2000) (Movie Review)

     There are distinct movies we love as kids, and even when we grow up we still hold that special attachment to them, even if it wasn’t all that great to begin with. Well, DreamWorks animated movie “The Road to El Dorado” isn’t one of those movies at all, as I simply watched and enjoyed it fine as a kid, but I didn’t really grow to love this movie until I watched it again in my young adult years. Honestly, even though it’s not exactly high art, “The Road to El Dorado” still has a secure place among my personal favorite animated movies. When it first premiered back in 2000, it was a box office flop, but thankfully has gained new life as an underground cult classic. It should be noted that “The Road to El Dorado” came out on the heals of the hit animated feature “The Prince of Egypt”, which is also one of my all time favorite animated films. It told a grand, epic story, with moral subtext and had emotionally siring human conflicts at the center. “The Road to El Dorado” has absolutely none of the same qualities that made me admire “The Prince of Egypt”, yet I still love it equally as much, just for completely different reasons. While I look back on “The Prince of Egypt” as an emotional epic, “The Road to El Dorado” is simply one of the most delightful and fun animated films that’s thankfully stuck with me though the years.

      Our story follows two con artists named Tulio and Miguel, who are best friends, and set out to find the legendary Golden City of El Dorado, with the former seeking riches and the ladder seeking an adventure. After many challenges and travels, our two unlikely heroes do indeed find the lost city, and the inhabitance mistake them for living Gods from legend. Once subtle in the Golden city, a plan is devised to fool the locals into building them a boat, in which they’ll escape and take many riches with them. However, a rift soon forms between the two as Miguel begins to see the true beauty of the city beneath the gold. He also discovers that the citizens are at the mercy of a bloodthirsty high-priest who aims to return El Dorado back to an age of human sacrifices. So, with his new title as God, Miguel leads the people out of the shadows, into the light and away from the violent intents of the sinister high priest. This in turn allows Miguel to find favor with the city’s humble chief. Now typically in a setup of this sort, there’s a moment when the liars are revealed, and everyone turns on them, but “The Road to El Dorado” completely avoids that tired cliché all together. In fact, the movie makes subtle hints that the chief knows they’re not really Gods, but there doing so much good for their city as individuals, that he doesn’t seem to mind. The real meat of the story revolves around Miguel and his partner Tulio, who aside from wanting gold has also fallen in love with one of the city’s more mischievous young girls named Chel. She knew of their secret from the start, and wants nothing more than to set off on adventure with them. So, between Miguel’s selfless feelings to help the city and Tulio’s selfish need for both gold and the woman he loves, a conflict begins to stir regarding weather their friendship will withstand between their new set goals.  

      In short, this is a more character driven story, with the friendship of our heroes at the center, and this is where “The Road to El Dorado” really shines as one of my personal favorites. In my opinion, Tulio and Miguel are one of the all time greatest animated duos I’ve ever seen, and heck, I’d call them a personal favorite even outside the realms of animation. I also find myself liking both of them more than the majority of lead male characters that have come from Disney. While Disney has created some terrific lead hero’s, it was always the side characters, the princesses and the villains that were the most fun to watch, as they were always the ones with the most personality. Tulio and Miguel by contrast are highly entertaining to watch, are always full of energy, and while their personalities in many respects are similar, their also two very different people at heart, and that makes them work off each-other brilliantly. Miguel is far more of a child at heart, while Tulio is more reserved and serious. They also share some extremely funny banter, and their exchanges vary from being quotable, to just plain hilarious. Aside from being extremely charismatic, the two do have a very rich partnership, and they feel like two men whose tight friendship has manifested over time into a form of brotherhood. Both Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh are brilliant in the lead roles, capturing the comradery of the duo, while also highlighting every individual aspect of what makes these two characters so charming. Kenneth Branagh as the voice of Miguel strikes that perfect balance between being the childish adventurer, but when he sticks up for the people of the city, he genuinely segues into that mighty and respectable voice that’s akin to his Shakespeare roles, like “Henry V”. Kevin Kline brings the same level of energy and wit to the role of Tulio as he does to his best comedy roles.  

     The praise doesn’t stop with our two leads either, as I love every single character in this film, and honestly, I’d write this film off as featuring one of my all-time favorite ensemble casts from an animated film. Let’s start by looking at the love interest Chel, who judging by her design could have easily been written off as your typical, boring piece of eye-candy. Thankfully, the voice actress, writers and animators infused her with a lot of personality and charm, making her an absolute delight to watch. 

I like that, while she has a good heart, she’s also a little naughty and mischievous, which helps her character fit alongside with Tulio and Miguel. Also, her funny reactions and witty comebacks infuse her with an equal level of charisma and energy as our two leads. Some of my favorite scenes are when all three of these characters are together exchanging witty lines and remarks to one-another. In fact, one of my absolute favorites is when Chel proves how sneaky she can be by revealing she stole Tulio’s gambling dice. This prompts Tulio to ask the obvious “How did you get those?”, while Miguel observing her lack of clothing asks … “Where was she keeping them?”. Kenneth Branagh’s delivery of that line is absolutely priceless. The Chief character is also very likable for being so laid back and chill, while keeping his own high-spirited personality reserved. We then have to silent animal side- kicks that get roped along for the adventure. One of which is a cute little armadillo, and the other is a war horse, who despite having no speaking lines still conveys a lot of human emotion, mannerism and has a distinctly comedic personality.    

      Now let’s look at our two villains, who are both solid bad guys in their own right. The evil high priest named Tzekel-Kan looks and acts like your typical evil sorcerer that’s prominently featured in other animated kids films, but he thankfully isn’t as cliched as his presentation would suggest. This isn’t a villain who strives to gain power over the land or Kingdom, and beyond his sinister nature is a man who’s trying to uphold what he believes to be the proper religion. To him, human sacrifices are an important part of demonstrating loyalty to his faith. This in turn makes him feel more frightening and even multi-layered, despite his over the top and flamboyant personality. The second villain is the sailor Cortes, who with a legion of soldiers aim to pillage El Dorado of all its wealth. While Cortes isn’t on screen for very long, he still adds an extra bit of flavor to the film. I love that the evil high priest functions as the current threat, while Cortes is a danger that’s off in the distance, and slowly making his way to our heroes. Cortes is also brought to life by voice acting legend Jim Cummings, and it’s a real teat to have him put aside the goofy, kid friendly characters in favor of a voice and tone that’s more menacing and dangerous.    

       Another talent that needs to be addressed is one pop star Elton John, who provides the music of the film. Both he and Lyricist Tim Rice were the same Oscar winning duo that worked on the songs for Disney’s “The Lion King”, so it was great to have them both reunite for this project. Also, Hans Zimmer, who composed the instrumental music for “The Lion King” (as well as the music for films like “Pirates of the Carrabin” and “The Dark Knight”), also provides the instrumental score for “The Road to El Dorado”. Speaking personally, the songs from Elton John really tie into my nostalgia for this film, as I practically grew up listening to his music, and I don’t just mean the stuff from animated movies he worked on. While the individual songs from this movies soundtrack don’t really stand out, I do still love Elton John’s musical collection as a whole, as I feels it adds a lot to the films charm and identity. The big theme song titled “Someday out of the Blue” is nothing special, at least on paper, but the simple lyrics and relaxing rhythm of the music always circle around in my head after listening to it. One of the more memorable songs is “The Trail we Blaze”, as it’s got the most high-spirit of any song, is featured during a terrific traveling montage, and ties the closest into the title of the movie. I absolutely love the opening El Dorado theme song, paired with a gorgeous animated sequence that depicts El Dorado’s mythical origin. My absolute favorite song is the musical number “It’s Tuff to be a God”, which is sung by our leads, is very energetic, beautifully animated, and is all around a beautifully designed sequence. At last, Hans Zimmer’s score also adds some flavor to the film, highlighting both the culture and adventure aspects of the film, and even breaths some atmosphere into select moments. I especially love the instrumental music track set to when our heroes first arrive in El Dorado, as it conveys this incredible feeling of aw, beauty and wonder. 

     On that note, the animation in this movie is absolutely breathtaking to look at. It’s colorful, detailed, and there’s a perfect marriage between the hand drawn animation and the CGI animation. I felt that the later DreamWorks animated film like “Spirit” and “Sinbad” got too reliant on having CGI in there traditionally hand drawn films, to the point where they just looked off-putting. This film however gets it just right, and has no shortage of stand out animation highlights. It's almost depressing to think that traditional animation ended shortly after this film, because this movie demonstrates how good this art form can still look, especially with the overabundance of CGI animated movies we get today. The setting of El Dorado likewise has a lot of personality and character on display. Of course, this movie is also a comedy, and looking back I was pleasantly surprised that the writing for the comedic elements still holds up. In fact, I think this movie is more cleaver with its comedic approach than most other animated comedies at this time were. The tone is similar to something like Disney’s “Aladdin”, where it’s a mix of comedy and adventure, and both elements are perfectly in sink without upstaging the other. When “The Road to El Dorado” wants to be funny, it can actually be hilarious. When the film wants to have a quiet moment to either flesh out the characters or give the setting some atmosphere, it doses that perfectly. At last, when the film aims for a fun adventure, it can get genuinely exciting. My favorite sequence in terms of action is when the evil high priest brings to life a giant cat statue to slay our heroes, which leads into a thrilling chase scene. Once the journey concludes, it always leaves me with a feeling of … I just want to keep going with these characters on their adventures. That’s not to say the film needed a sequel, it’s just nice when a film makes me want to keep going even as the credits role.           

    In the end, this is one of those movies that I know doesn’t deserve a perfect five-star rating, but I still love it just as much as any film I’d give that ratting to. While “The Road to El Dorado” doesn’t convey as much as other films, I still adore every single thing it has to offer, and thus, it just feels kind of perfect in its own simplistic way. Famed animation director Don Bluth has described animated films as an oasis, a peaceful place where you go to take a break from your ever day life, and then after a humble little experience, you return to the real world feeling refreshed. While that statement can apply to any animated film, I feel it really fits with “The Road to El Dorado”. This is a very derivative film, but I just find it so refreshingly derivative, kind of like spending a little bit of time at an oasis. I go in to spend time with these wonderful characters, I have some good laughs, I view nothing but beautiful imagery, I listen too nostalgic music, and when I come back, I may not have gained anything meaningful, but I’m still just really happy I had the experience. I’m so glad “The Road to El Dorado” has grown a fan base over the years, and I sincerely hope that more people, especially a new generation of kids can discover this little piece of animated gold.    

I give “The Road to El Dorado” a strong 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Top Gun (1986) Movie Review

      Tom Cruise is one of those talents who just refuses to let his carrier die. He first struck fame in the 1980’s, and even now in the late 2010’s he’s still proving to be an action movie star with no equal. Despite all his highs/lows and even his age, it’s really amazing that Tom Cruise still continues to make a name for himself, especially with the success of all the recent “Mission Impossible” movies. With his career soaring higher then ever before, it felt like the time was right to look back at a nostalgic little gem from the mid-1980’s, and subsequently is the very movie that introduced me to Tom Cruise in the first place. 1986’s “Top Gun” is one of those special time capsule movie’s that take audiences back to a simpler, care free time, when a critically mixed film could still be regarded as a motion picture classic. No joke, “Top Gun” didn’t fair to well with the critics, yet it’s still considered by many as a staple of 1980’s action cinema. Heck, the Library of Congress deemed the film worthy of preservation in the National Film Registry for being culturally, aesthetically and historically significant. So, how dose “Top Gun” really hold up after all these years, is it truly a classic or just a nostalgic hit film from the 80’s?

     Tom Cruise stars as a US Navel Pilot named Maverick, who’s the hot shot, fly-boy that aims to be the best pilot there is. Thus, he’s sent to Top Gun flight school to see his dream soar sky high. Along the way he falls in love with an instructor, and all kinds of admittedly formulaic things begin to take shape. A romance is born, a rival pilot challenges his skills, and our hero struggles after the loss of a fellow pilot, but after one inspiring speech he can finally prove himself during a climactic battle. Truthfully, the romance, drama and familiar formula aren’t this movies strength, it’s the films self-awareness of its own clichés, and how it just embraces them with a humble charm, and its gun-ho airborne action. It’s one of those films where you can predict every single event, but it’s all done with such a charming presentation that it’s hard not to have fun with it.

      Without a doubt, my favorite aspect of the film is its musical soundtrack, as it really gives the film it’s nostalgic identity, and makes it feel the most like a product of the 80’s. Speaking personally, as a kid I was introduced to the soundtrack years before I ever saw the film, and probably wouldn’t have seen it in the first place had it not been for my love for these songs. This is one of those special, awesome, yet admittedly dated and cheesy soundtracks that characterized action movies of the 80’s, most notably films like “Rocky 4” and “The Transformers: The Movie”. In many respects, I often found these soundtracks more fun than the actual films. Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone” always stood out to me as the official “Top Gun” theme song, although there is the equally iconic “Top Gun Anthem” composed by Harold Faltermeyer & Steve Stevens. “Playing with the Boys” is another memorable song by Kenny Loggins that always stood out in my mind as the theme song for Tom Cruise flight training sequences. One of the subtler mid 80’s songs is “Sittin On the Dock of the Bay” performed by Otis Redding, which I’ve personally never been a fan of, but I’ve also never forgotten it. My absolute favorite song of the whole track is “Mighty Wings” performed by Cheap Trick. While this song never inspired me to actually go flying, it has for longest time been one of the first songs that always pops into my head whenever I go bike riding. It just gives me that heightened excitement, and inspiration to push myself whenever I’m doing a physical activity. Perhaps the most significant song of all is Berlins “Take my Breath Away”, which won the Oscar for best original song, and subsequently it’s the films only Oscar win. There’re other great songs I could mention, but I’d be trailing a little too of topic of my movie review if I listed them all.        

     Now let’s finally talk about the cast, beginning with my favorite character “Iceman” played by Val Kilmer. This is another hot shot pilot who’s a rival with Tom Cruise’s lead character Maverick, but he isn’t a one-note bully either. He actually expresses a reasonable amount of concern for our leads fly-by the seat attitude, which are perfectly valid. While we do cheer for Maverick, he certainly isn’t a perfect person, so it’s great that the rival character is the one to call him out, yet also show respect for his opponents flying skills. Seeing them form mutual respect for one another was truthfully in my opinion the most touching character arc of the film. Michael Ironside plays a flight trainer named Jester, and he’s always a great talent to have on screen. We then have Kelly McGills as the love interest named Charlotte, who despite a decent performance was always my least favorite addition to the film. I just never felt any real chemistry between her and Tom Cruise, resulting in some very boring romantic scenes that always slowed the film down for me.

     At last we have Tom Cruise himself as Lt. Maverick, and even though it’s not his absolute best role, this is the one that I always associate the actor with the most. Whenever I passively hear the name Tom Cruise, instantly the first thing that always comes to mind is him sitting in the cockpit of a jet, with the flight vest and wearing the cool classes. Looking back, his performance really is the glue that holds the film together. His transition from cocky fly-boy, to someone trying to regain his self-confidence all feels genuine without going too far into either melodrama or goofy annoyance. He also brings a distinct charm to the role that makes him appealing to watch. While 1983’s “Risky Business” was his first true breakout role (arguably his best), “Top Gun” undeniably launched his carrier, and he hasn’t come down sense.     

      Lets finally talk about another one of the films many great contributions to cinema, it’s electrifying aerial flight footage, which is a masterful testament on how to shoot action scenes that are in flight. While “Top Gun” achieved Oscar nominations for best film editing, sound effects editing and overall sound design, I’m perplexed it didn’t get any credit for its cinematography. Seriously, after all these years, the air battles and flight cinematography on display are still a thing of beauty to behold. Despite being branded as one of the definitive action movies of the 80’s, there’s only one real battle scene at the end of the film, which was a bold move on the part of the writers. The films only method of action are the air battles, which could have gotten repetitive, but by focusing primarily on the flight training of our pilot, it gets us more pumped for this final sky battle show-down. Combine that with the riveting aerial battle footage and you have yourself set for a powerhouse climax.

     In the end, “Top Gun” is far from what I would call a masterpiece, but it’s unmistakably a fun film that leaves me feeling great every time I watch it. It’s clearly a product of its time, so it can’t really soar as a classic and it has some admittedly boring parts that keep it from being as re-watchable as other great action films of its era. Still, there’s a lot of appeal to the film, including a very nostalgic soundtrack, breathtaking cinematography, and it still stands as a career defining turn on Tom Cruise’s successful resume of hit action films.    

I give “Top Gun” 3 ½ stars out of 5.